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News Article

Exclusive: Producers Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman on the Future of 'Fringe'

Sometimes being a hero is a thankless job. On the cult favorite series Fringe, Peter Bishop selflessly sacrificed himself to save two universes and was consequently wiped out of existence. Now, somehow, he's back, but in an alternate timeline, and is desperately trying to set things right. Executive producers Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman spoke exclusively to me about this Friday's episode, a possible big bad and the future of Fringe.

The beginning of season four focused quite a bit on Olivia and Lincoln. Creatively, what did Peter's absence allow you to explore and were there concerns that maybe you were keeping him away too long?

Jeff: Obviously, what it allowed us to do was reset a timeline without Peter in it and really display the consequences of his heroic choice to save the world. He simply ceased to exist in it. It always felt authentic to us to actually follow through with that consequence. It was suggested to us by the network, the studio and other people, "Hey, let's just forget that happened." We had to show the courage of our convictions. Of course, even from the very beginning of this season, there were clear indications Josh Jackson/Peter was still part of the show. Walter was seeing flashes of him. He was in the show, without being a character in the show. It really allowed us to demonstrate what the world was like, in the same way when we first saw the alternate universe. You have to establish these things as fact first. As far as whether if we were worried that people were going to be frustrated...we're fans of the show. We were frustrated. We thought it was a healthy frustration, but the frustration made his return more satisfying.

Joel: It's funny, but somebody told us it was a phenomenal finale and we said, "Great! I guess you liked it!" He said "I'm amazed by it. I just don't know how I feel about it. I'll wait to see if it's going to pay off or not." I thought that was really smart because he had a reaction, thought it was terrific, but wasn't sure where it was going. He still had one foot in and one foot out. I'm citing that only because that's the key. Jeff and I are always talking about the theme and the story we want to tell. In order for us to attack the themes and the things in the story, we need to do exactly what we do. In retrospect, when you get to the end of the season, you'll have realized "Oh, of course." It should be starting to come into focus now, what the master plan is and the reason why we did it. We never had any intention of Peter being gone. We just wanted to start the theme of impact. How do we impact others? We're always saying life is valued by the connections you make. This season was all about being there and not being there. What does it mean to exist and what does it mean not to exist? And what impact do you have on someone and what do they have on you? What can you add to their lives? And what if you were gone? What difference would it make to these people? We always felt confidence in our decision because we knew it was for a deeper thematic reason.

Speaking of master plans, this week's episode, Back To Where You've Never Been, was supposed to be the winter season's finale. Were you disappointed it got bumped because of baseball and does it disrupt your rhythm at all?

Joel: Not at all. We knew that could be a possibility a long time ago. With the ending of us dosing Olivia at the end of episode 7, it was designed to function as a cliffhanger in its own right. We knew the order of episodes we wanted to tell, so had 8 and 9 been split over a break, that would have been fine. In retrospect, it's probably better that with these two episodes, ending as they do with the cliffhanger that they do, you don't have to wait six weeks. That might have been some unhealthy frustration, but we were willing to go there.  It's frustrating because everyone kept saying, "Well, it should have been a bigger cliffhanger." Well, come on, it's not our fault!

Obviously, viewers are expecting some pretty major developments in the upcoming episode. Can you tease what it's about and how it sets things into motion for the back half of the season?

Jeff: For sure. Obviously, Peter having not gotten any satisfaction from Walter, who is refusing to help him go home, decides there is another version of his Dad, a man equally as brilliant who may be willing to help. Peter crosses universes and finds that his expectations about what he's going to find with Walternate are not entirely true. Simultaneously, it has been referenced the first seven episodes were sort of a prequel to this season, or an act one, as it were, which is very much true. We've laid a lot of groundwork, and foreshadowed with shape-shifters, for the coming obstacles toward the characters in both universes. In the next episode, we are going to reveal who in fact is the ultimate bad guy this season.

You must be thrilled that viewers have totally embraced the alternate universe as much as the regular one.

Joel: We feel justified. When we first figured out how we were going to tell the story, Jeff and I were sitting there going, "We have so much rich story to tell over there and we really loved it. But if we start doing episodes that are half Over Here and half Over There, we're going to short change how great we think the place could be." At first, there was a lot of resistance from some people who didn't want to go over there and stay here. We were saying, "Well, if we get them to believe in the mythology over there and find the things we're excited by compelling, they are going to follow." And we were right. We're so glad. We're thrilled we got you from hating Bolivia to being invested in her. That means people are paying attention and getting taken in by the saga.

It's interesting that even with Peter back, viewers are conflicted with the Peter/Lincoln/Olivia triangle.

Jeff: It's not really accurate to call it a triangle because This Olivia just reminds Peter of the Olivia he's left behind.

Joel: But it's hard to have the love of your life literally right there in front of you and you don't know if you'll ever get back to see her.

It sounds like Fringe is really going to be mythology-driven for the remainder of the season, or will you still be balancing them with standalone episodes?

Joel: We sort of came up with this term "Mythalone," that we've been using a lot. That's actually the key to everything to us. We know the particular elements of having stand-alones. That makes sense business-wise for a number of reasons. People can tune in and we're always looking to improve viewership. But it frustrates the long-term fans to no end. We're stuck in that traditional problem everyone has. For Jeff and I, it was hard to figure out. It's like one of those puzzles that's really hard and when you see the end, it's like "D'uh!" Our first mythalone was White Tulip or around there. We started to realize we could have a really compelling case of the week that was thematically linked to the narrative of our mythology and still feel like our story was moving forward and address the things fans were concerned about. That's how we are, but at the end of the season, going forward, you are going to get more mythology.

Jeff: The lessons learned at both Alias and Lost, and we've been trying to implement since day one, are allowing the mythology to be important and rewarding, but not more important than the character stories you are telling. And also not trying to draw people along by virtue of waiting and waiting and hoping to get answers, but actually raising questions and answering them quickly.

Joel, you mentioned a big bad for the season and between the promos and the online buzz, many have speculated it's David Robert Jones. What makes him a good foil for Peter's mission?

Joel: One of the great things we've enjoyed is if you would have found out that there was a love triangle, that Peter was going to have an affair, what's really cool about Fringe is you would have never guessed it was with another version of Olivia. While David Robert Jones is a player, supposedly by the internet accounts, other people are coming back. If you stand back and look at the narrative of the show, there are a lot of elements coming back, but you understand them in a different context. I'll just say Peter is going to have an idea of how hard it is going forward because of external forces. As far as the big bad, it would be a mistake to think of the big bad as one person.

Poor Peter. The weight of the world has been on his shoulders lately.

Jeff: In this timeline? He certainly has information that other characters don't, yet all of it doesn't track what he believes to be true. He has information because he comes from a timeline where some of these events have already played out, and yet they haven't played out exactly the same. He's both very valuable and also equally in the dark as our other characters. Just as often as not, he's going to be wrong.

The last episode ended with Nina dosing Olivia, so are viewers going to have to keep guessing about her true motives and nature?

Jeff: Of course. That's been part of the architecture of the show from the beginning. Nina has been unreliable, or at least she was, and then over the course of the first few seasons, she proved herself to be utterly reliable and benevolent towards our characters. This season, we started from the opposite side of the spectrum. We started with a woman who had in fact been a surrogate mother to Olivia, only to reveal seven episodes in she certainly seems to be doing some nefarious things to Olivia. And Blair Brown is a tremendous actor. We wanted to give her some other colors to play.

Joel: Yeah, we've been waiting to give her something really worthy of her ability. We really found it. There's some good stuff coming up from her.

What have the enigmatic Observers added to this series?

Jeff: As much as possible, we've really tried to keep it a mystery. We love, in a show, where one of the themes is science and whether science is good or bad, how the choices you make can instantly lead to different outcomes, only snowball in the future. The Observers are a manifestation of that. We like that they are very mysterious characters, hanging around on the fringe of the stories. We'll learn more about them as we go forward.

Joel: Under the headline of "We hate shows that will keep asking questions and not give any answers," this has a destination. You'll learn a lot more about the Observers this season.

Every year, Fringe teeters on that renewal bubble. Are you proceeding as if you'll be back another season?

Jeff: I will say every television show I've ever been on, short of Lost, which had such massive fan support, the majority of television shows don't know until deep into the season whether they will be on the next year. The network has always been incredibly transparent with us, so the "bubble story" that has been in the press every season has not been felt internally by us. Ever. Having said that, just as an operating principle, we design each season as a full and complex chapter of a bigger story. If any season were to be the last one, we're prepared to write an ending that feels satisfying. It might not be the original ending we had in mind, it might not be as far along as we'd like to take the story... We know there are outlets like graphic novels and webisodes to keep any story we're interested in going. It's just a reality of the television business that nobody ever has a guaranteed season beyond what they are on.

But you would prefer the studio gave you enough advance notice to wrap the series on your own terms?

Joel: Well, one of the things we've been doing inadvertently, and then more by design, is that the end of each season is the end of a chapter. That's what we really adore now and we always talk about completing it that way. Our plans probably won't change much, but we do have a great sense of how much our fans don't want to be let down. We have a couple of ideas that if the worst thing happens, we feel that if we were viewers, and the showrunners had offered us what we're thinking of, we would be satisfied. We care deeply about our fans and we don't want anyone to feel we never got the chance to tell the end of the story.